France hail Uini Atonio return as Warren Gatland hints at looming Wales cull after torrid Six Nations
Wales could hardly have hoped for worse news than to face a France side welcoming back one of the world’s top front-row forwards.
Les Bleus are buoyant in the extreme for their final Six Nations clash off the back of hammering England 53-10 at Twickenham last weekend.
Warren Gatland has admitted some of his most senior Wales players could be facing a Test swansong in Paris, such is his team’s current malaise and need to change tack for the World Cup.
France have no such worries, with head coach Fabien Galthie hailing the returning Uini Atonio as the world’s foremost tight-head prop.
France could even win the tournament should Ireland not beat England in Dublin, but boss Galthie insisted his in-form side will strike out any such thoughts.
“From the moment Uini has been performing with France, he is a player who has shown his experience and intrinsic qualities,” said Galthie. “He is today surely the best in the world at his position at the scrum. This is an asset that makes him an indisputable starter.
“The selection of Romain Taofifenua also makes sense, since he is our No2 at lock. He’s always there when we call on him.
“We will focus on us, because to win the tournament or to be able to compete, we will have to beat Wales. We cannot underestimate Wales. We prefer to focus on our match, at least there we hold our destiny in hand. After that, the rest is not ours.”
France have lost just once in the past two years, when falling to Ireland 32-19 in Dublin last month. Wales, in contrast, have won just once in this Championship, dispatching Italy 29-17 last weekend.
Taulupe Faletau will win his 100th cap in Paris, in a stellar international career dating back to 2011. Gatland quickly set sentiment aside, however, insisting as many as eight Wales players could now be approaching their Test-match twilight.
“If I look at the squad, there are up to eight players who are potentially playing their last Six Nations game,” said the Wales head coach.
“We’ve got to think about building for the World Cup this year, but also think about 2027. You need to bring in some younger players and give them that time to develop. The ideal scenario is you want to go to the World Cup with a squad of mid- to late-twenties with 40 or 50 caps.
“Taulupe has been a fantastic servant for Welsh rugby. Even though he’s reaching 100 caps, he’s still pretty quiet, but he’s incredibly well respected by the players for what he’s achieved.”